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Good Design is Cross-Cultural

Every day, the world around us becomes more and more globalized — and, as a result, so must our work.

Words by Tony Ho Tran, Visuals by Emi Tolibas

With an Internet connection and the right platforms, our products and services can be made available to working mothers in China, college students in India, and Gen-Z teens in America.

As designers, then, we’re confronted with a double-edged sword: The excitement of being able to design for people of every single walk of life, but also the immense responsibility of meeting their needs in an ethical and empathetic way.

How do we create for a multicultural audience and address their needs?

In his book Cross-Cultural Design, designer and creative director Senongo Akpem offers a primer on how designers and researchers should approach designing and creating across cultures. He covers a breadth of topics embedded in challenging assumptions and gives readers accessible methodology for cross-cultural design.

We caught up with Senongo to discuss his book, the work that went into it, and why you should always analyze your own work.

dscout: What got you interested in cross-cultural design?

Senongo: Seeing things through a multicultural lens has always been quite natural to me. It was how I grew up, and what my family life was like.

I have a Nigerian dad and a white American mom. I grew up in Nigeria and went to an international boarding school for the majority of grade school. It seemed completely normal to me to be from two, three places at once, and to have friends who were the same way. I had friends whose families were second generation Nigerians, but still carried Lebanese or Egyptian passports, for example. A cross-cultural world was just the way things were for us.

Years later, as I started working as a designer, a lot of those same ideas manifested themselves in the things that I created and the types of projects that attracted me. Then in 2012, I gave a talk on cross-cultural design in New York, and that was the first time that I'd ever publicly put these ideas together for a design audience, and for myself.

What people get wrong a lot is in not understanding how their biases will affect the cross-cultural work they set out to do.

Senongo Akpem

Was there a moment that made you realize that it was something we needed to be talking about more?

I lived in Japan for over seven years. I taught English for the first few years I was there. As a teacher, you learn quickly that ideas some may seem quite straightforward to communicate in English, but actually come with a lot of nuance and cultural baggage.

I often had to explain not only what a word or phrase meant, but also the different ways that the Brits or the Fifians or the Americans would use that word. A British teacher might walk into a class and ask the students “You alright?” as a greeting, where an American teacher would only ask that if the student was choking on a sip of water. It's totally different.

Culture brought interesting context to language. Later on, working as a freelance designer in Japan, I did work for expats who needed websites for both Japanese and English audiences. And so, that kind of cultural context started to come to the forefront even more. I didn’t see cross-cultural design back then as a “thing” that needed to be discussed in our community, but I was definitely on my way to understanding it as a designer.

Is that how you got your start in design?

I studied printmaking! I went to Japan for a few months as an exchange student, and then decided to go back after graduation. I was teaching, but needed to design a website for a business. I started designing and building sites, taught myself HTML/CSS (and some Flash, when it was still a thing!). From there, I moved more fully into interactive design. When we moved to New York, I got a job as a web designer at Cambridge University Press, and that was yet another opportunity to work on design that reached across language and national borders.

When it comes to cross-cultural design and designing for perspectives that a team isn't quite familiar with, what do you think that teams and people often get wrong?

We have to be honest about our assumptions. Many of the ideas we have about design come loaded with all sorts of biases, and we need to start by explicitly acknowledging them.

Here’s a concrete example. We might say, “The majority of our audience is in Southeast Asia, and they're going to be using lower-end feature phones to access our site.” Now already, you've made a bunch of assumptions about these people that may or may not be true, and a blanket statement like that leaves little nuance for the way real human culture is.

Instead of running with that assumption, take a step back and turn it into a question. Say something like, “What types of phones do our audiences have?” or “What does our audience's data usage look like?” All of a sudden it turns into a research exercise, rather than a terrible assumption that will lead your design efforts in the wrong direction. The same thing applies to many, many other cultural attachments. So I guess what people get wrong a lot is in not understanding how their biases will affect the cross-cultural work they set out to do.

Designers often incorrectly assume that we are the best people to do the job in the first place. We see a problem like, “Oh, there’s a lot of trash on the street. Let’s do a design sprint on trash cans.” But does it solve the problem at all?

Senongo Akpem

Always test your assumptions. Does any example come to your mind of a team or organization that does it well?

I was at a conference a while back where there was a presentation by Danielle M. Reyes and Dr. Selma Caal, the executive director and director of research at the Crimsonbridge Foundation. One of their mission strategies was to give grants to nonprofit organizations that needed better outreach to Spanish speaking communities.

One was Girls on the Run Montgomery County, a site for a 5K run for girls. They wanted to have better outreach to the large Spanish speaking community in the area, but didn't really know how to go about it.

On the face of it, the first assumption might be, “Well, just translate your website.” But it's never that easy. Crimsonbridge worked with the organization to create content in Spanish, which is a very different way of looking at what it means to localize your sites.

Girls on the Run launched a great one page website that explained everything in Spanish and listed out the things that parents needed to know. Reyes and Caal explained that many of these parents may have different cultural ideas about allowing their girls to attend an event with lighter adult supervision, or even might have trouble understanding the equipment needs for a 5K run.

It was an effective way to use a targeted grant to have a really, really massive impact. So, I think that's an example of somebody who challenged assumptions quite well with limited resources.

Sometimes it seems a culture gap is a canyon when designers approach a project. How can we better understand our audiences when it seems like sometimes the cultural gap seems so large?

Designers often incorrectly assume that we are the best people to do the job in the first place. We see a problem like, “Oh, there's a lot of trash on the street. Let's do a design sprint on trash cans.” But does it solve the problem at all? You're not the best placed to rethink that problem.

When we're trying to figure out how we should be researching in different communities, one of the things that I recommend is... just don’t. Instead, work on finding a local collaborator, a UX expert from that culture who can do it for you.

That way you learn from somebody with on-the-ground knowledge. They can synthesize and filter the information that you need, especially if it's user research. You get somebody who users are going to be more comfortable speaking with about whatever potential UX problems they find. There's an undercurrent of language and cultural information that you may not understand as an external observer.

In your book, you say that it's not simply enough for designers to implement cross-cultural practices. They need to become “practitioners.” In order to do that, though, you need to develop competence. What are some of the most effective ways teams and leaders can develop that competence for themselves?

Not everybody is good at everything. It's important to say that I will never play professional basketball. I will never have a painting hang in the Guggenheim. I may never own a car. And there are certain cross-cultural competencies that just aren’t right for certain designers. Some people will never truly get it.

You can't learn it all, but there are specific cross-cultural research actions that designers should be able to take in the course of their work. I think the word empathy is overplayed in design because it relieves us of the responsibility to be practitioners.

If you're trying to make somebody feel at ease, you mirror the thing that they're doing. So, if they touch their face, you touch your face. They cross their legs, you cross your legs. It’s a subconscious action that humans perform. Now, as a cross-cultural practitioner, how do you consciously mirror when it comes to cultural habits?

When I moved back from Japan, for a long time I still performed physical actions that were appropriate in the Japanese context, but had no meaning in the U.S. So, for example, if you wanted the waiters across the room to know you're done eating, what the hand signal would you throw so that they bring your cheque?

It's also common in the U.S. to make a writing motion, a signature a signing motion in the air, meaning I want to sign my check, right? But in Japan, it's very common to just put up your two index fingers in an X shape. So, I was going to restaurants and I'd put up this cross. I should have been mirroring the correct cultural action and I wasn't. And so, there was a little bit of disconnection.

Designers must move beyond the empathy stage, and actually implement cross-cultural practices if they are to get more competent, more proficient, in this work. In Cross-Cultural Design, I encourage people to develop their Cultural Intelligence, what psychologist Daniel Goleman calls “a propensity to suspend judgement—to think before acting.”

What are some essential resources that you would recommend to someone who's interested about expanding their worldview in terms of cross-cultural design a little bit more?

One of them quite interestingly isn't necessarily about cross-cultural design in that sense of the word, but about typography: Bi-Scriptural. It's a large book. But it goes through the ways that typographers put together multi-language scripts and how they pair them.

For instance, if you're going to have English and Hebrew on a poster or in a book, what are the ways that those two character sets need to work in harmony? What are the things that designers should account for?

The book’s been amazingly helpful for me because I think many of those ideas are true across the whole practice of cross-cultural design. Not only of type, but of color, of photography. We need to look deeper into how these different cultural touch points work together on the screen and in print.

The other thing that I would point to is there are quite a few research papers that have been done on this topic, many by PhDs who study human computer interaction. They write about this stuff all the time, but it almost never reaches a wider design audience.

Somebody will write a Medium article talking about how they just noticed that their IA needs to work a little bit differently for their Arabic speaking audiences. And there's 50 PhDs that are like, “I talked about this 10 years ago!”

What's a question that you wish people would ask you more? And how would you answer it?

I wish that people would inquire more about how to analyze their own existing work. There's definitely this thread in design of, “I'm going to redo it. I'm going to tackle discrimination with this new project. We're going to get on a call, and we're going to reimagine racial discrimination,” or whatever.

But actually saying, “You know what, here's the past five projects that I've done. I want to take an honest look at them. For a consulting fee, tell me where they went pear shaped, from a cross-cultural perspective.”

There has to be a way to look back at the things that we've done, and not always try to hide our terrible cultural missteps and act like they didn't happen. As designers, we have such a great responsibility to create, and to maintain, the visual language and content or the web. We have to be honest about what is working, what is culturally effective, and I hope more people ask those questions, of me, and of themselves.

Tony Ho Tran is a freelance journalist based in Chicago. His articles have appeared in Huff Post, Business Insider, Growthlab, and wherever else fine writing is published.

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